It doesn’t seem that long ago that Valve officially teased its own virtual reality (VR) headset, the Valve Index. Sure, images had circulated the web that the company had one in the works but when an actual formal mention is made, it makes it all the more exciting. Three months later and the Valve Index has now begun shipping to those customers lucky enough (and quick enough) to have placed their pre-orders in May. And in all honesty, you’ve made a great decision.
I’ve been lucky enough to have access to the Valve Index for a month now although I’ve not been able to use it every day namely due to being away at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2019 earlier this month. I previously wrote a fairly detailed hands-on article for the headset so after spending more time with the device when possible, it was time to write a candid assessment of the Valve Index.
Right from the off when Valve introduced the headset for the first time at a special press event in Seattle the company made it quite clear its intentions for Valve Index. The head-mounted display (HMD) hasn’t been designed to attract more consumers to the market with cheap pricing, it has been designed for high fidelity and all the VR enthusiasts out there. Which is fine, and the pricing does reflect this, but is it really worth it?
Valve has definitely taken a leap out of the modern packaging handbook when it comes to presentation. The full kit comes in a massive sleek, shiny black box which feels weighty and solid enough to sit on (please, please don’t though). Inside is a lovely double layer arrangement with the main hardware – headset, controllers, and base stations – on top and all the cabling and other paraphernalia underneath. The top layer also has handy fabric tabs either side to allow for easy lifting. Very plush and well thought out.
As you’d hope to expect all the kit is well made and put together, the plastic doesn’t feel cheap and it all seems like it could take a knock or two if users aren’t too careful! So far this is also reassuring due to the fact that there are so many moving/adjustable parts to the system. Discounting things like the buttons and triggers, controllers such as the Oculus Touch or the ones for HTC Vive only have a single wrist strap to deal with. The Valve Index Controllers have the fabric strap for the back of the hand which has two points where it can be altered.
Likewise, the Valve Index headset features a ratchet tightening dial at the back, manual IPD adjustment underneath and another dial on the side to move the lenses backwards and forwards depending on preference and whether you wear glasses. For the time being this is all great, a super amount of options to suit everyone, time will tell how well they wear, however.
As a brand new toy to play with the Valve Index just keeps getting better and better. As mentioned, because of all those options to tweak the fit the headset is a joy to use. Very comfortable from the outset, after playing a number of titles such as Beat Saber, Aperture Hand Labs and some Shadow Legend VR continuously I didn’t feel the need for rest or that the HMD was getting too much. This is in part due to a nice balance with a really rugged and well-padded head strap back. A VR headset will always have more weight at the front due to lenses, circuit boards and displays, there isn’t a way around that. Valve does seem to found a happy trade-off currently.
And let us not forget the screen quality. It might not be OLED like HTC Vive but that hasn’t stopped Valve Index producing a feast for the eyes. The custom built full-RGB LCD display offers a resolution of 1440×1600 per eye (same as HTC Vive Pro) and a 120Hz refresh rate. Which to put it bluntly means Valve Index makes VR look awesome. LCD might not be as good on darker scenes as OLED, unable to generate the same black levels but so what. The screendoor effect is massively reduced, colours are bright and punchy and visuals are suitably crisp. If I’m being picky at points straight lines do come off a little jaggy which can only really be improved with even higher resolutions.
In conjunction with the display, the near-field speakers are capable of some sonic beauty so you won’t miss your headphones. I was concerned about external noise on first inspection and disappointed there wasn’t a headphone jack if I didn’t like the audio quality. Unless you’re using the Valve Index in a busy building site I wouldn’t worry, as you’ll barely notice any outside interference. Videogames like Beat Saber showcase the range, clear at the top with some decent bass – just don’t expect sub-levels! The same goes for spatial audio. For example, the elevator speaker in Aperture Hand Labs had just the right distance and hollowness for the environment.
Possibly even more impressive and certainly more fun to play with are the Valve Index Controllers. While the headset ups the ante when it comes to all the variables mentioned against competitors, it’s the controllers that make the entire system what it is and the best reason to consider purchasing. By far these are the most natural to use of any VR system – and that comes from someone who has always liked Oculus Touch – once you’ve got the fit just so (which doesn’t take too long). Aperture Hand Labs is a good place to start, being able to see the individual finger movements and test the pressure sensitivity.
This is all well and good when it comes to Valve’s own title but developers need to optimise their experiences as well. Thankfully, many have done so, with Owlchemy Labs’ Vacation Simulator a good example of the finger tracking tech. Shadow Legend VR shows the grip function off to great effect. I was able to actually grab the sword at my waist which made the immersion levels skyrocket, liberally swinging it and fighting opponents.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to controller dexterity. Dribble a basketball openhanded, roll a bowling ball with more realism, pick up an egg and crush it, swear at an NPC if you so wish. It’s now open season on hand movements, with the only real limit being how well developers can actually deploy these features. If there is one problem it’s not a bad one, you’ve now been spoilt and other controllers just don’t match up. Just as well, they’re certainly not cheap.
When it comes to cost and who would buy the Valve Index there’s one particular market the system is being aimed at, HTC Vive owners. In particular, those of you who’ve owned one since day one or as near as dammit. If you purchased your HTC Vive within the first 12 months of launch (even more so in the first six months), have used it most days, loved owning the headset and now want to take the next step then Valve Index is it, even more than the HTC Vive Pro I reckon. Use your old sensors and just get the headset and controllers. The 2.0 Base Stations are more suited to massive areas and VR Arcades anyway.
Oculus Rift users? If you’ve bought all your VR titles on Steam then yeah go for the full kit, otherwise, don’t bother. As for everyone else just entering the VR field for the first time you’re not going to appreciate what Valve Index offers, Oculus Quest is a better entry point. Unless you have a great wad of cash that’s weighing you down, in which case Valve Index it is (when you can get hold of one).
If you couldn’t tell by now I’m quite fond of Valve’s new HMD. Sure it’s expensive and most gamers aren’t going to be able to afford it and Valve knows this. Have you loved VR for years and can’t go back to pancake gaming on a screen? Then Valve Index is for you. Don’t stress that shipments won’t take place until the end of September 2019, instead use that time to save up and treat yourself to an awesome Christmas present.